“Learning happens everywhere. Somehow, we have to figure out how to recognize that learning.”

That was one of the closing thoughts that stuck with me when I sat in on an interview between WCET’s Executive Director, Russ Poulin, and the inspiring Peter Smith late last month. The interview centered on Peter’s newest book on higher education, Stories from the Educational Underground: The New Frontier for Learning and Work, but really, it was just a great excuse to sit down (albeit virtually) with a wonderfully kind educator whose rich and varied experiences have provided him with some outstanding ideas about the future of higher education.

Today I’ll share with you segments of the interview broken up by topics. The full-length interview is available on our YouTube channel. Thank you to Russ and Peter for sharing your thoughts with us, your work for the higher education community, and your dedication to serving WCET members.

Enjoy the read and the listen!

Lindsey Downs, WCET

Introducing – Peter Smith

Inaugural president of a community college, congressman, state senator, lieutenant governor, assistant director for education at UNESCO, professor, endowed chair, senior advisor…. WCET executive council member (previous) and WCET award winner.

That’s quite the vast experience and range of titles for our interviewee, Peter Smith, who graciously sat down with WCET’s Executive Director in September to discuss his new book, his thoughts on the new frontier of higher education, and the personal interviews he conducted to fill the pages of said new book. Russ and Peter talked about the format of the interviews and final product, takeaways, today’s higher education system, and how we move forward from here.

Use of Personal Stories – and Owning One’s Place in the Telling of Them

Peter has written several books, most of which were written at “very arm’s length” and were more “data driven.” In this case, he wanted to show the actual stories, the “strands of reality,” and highlight how hard it was for these specific individuals to achieve their goals, to accomplish what they wanted to in life.

During the interview process, it came to Peter that he was a very privileged, white male who was trying to tell the stories of minoritized and underserved populations. He asked himself “what right do I have to write this book?” His wife advised him to include his own story as the counterpart or counterpoint to the stories of the interviewees. What a great way to “own your place” and “own your own privilege.”

Takeaways from the Interviews

The takeaways Russ and Peter discussed focused more on the reasons people do or do not go to college and whether ambition for postsecondary education has anything to do with persisting through to a credential.  These interviews showed Peter that while the life stories were all very different, each interviewee had the ambition and the desire to go to college, but for some reason, felt they couldn’t or faced some barrier. Those highlighted in this book, though, are unique from others because they were eventually able to do something about that barrier. They spoke a lot (in this section and throughout the interview) about the help some receive when it comes to starting an educational journey – whether it’s a parent getting you an interview, a friend making an important call, having some connection with college admissions, or just plain old luck. Much of our society is built on making the most out of those kinds of incidents. But what about the students who don’t have that help? How can we make luck more inclusive?

The (Issues…? Challenges…? Problems?) with Today’s Higher Education System

Did you “pick yourself up with your own bootstraps?” That’s a wonderfully inspirational image to conjure up, but as Peter and Russ discuss, it’s a fallacy. And it’s a fallacy that assumes you even have boots with bootstraps to pull. Our higher education system makes many assumptions and requirements about our students, such as how prepared they are when they enroll. Peter and Russ also discuss new models of education and learning that are growing in numbers outside of the traditional higher education system, offered by companies for their own employees or for others.

Moving Forward – How to Make a Difference

This final video was not only a great conclusion to a great interview, but included Peter’s advice to for higher education leaders who want to make a difference.

My favorite piece of advice was for institutions to consider how they relate to the community around them and make sure that they are doing work that benefits the local area and the specific employers in the area. Peter also said that it’s his (our) job to see where people are, understand where they want to go, and help them get there. And that time spent getting there shouldn’t include having to relearn (or sit through hearing about) something they already know.

So again: learning happens everywhere. It’s our job (as higher education leaders, administrators, educators, etc.) to figure out how to not only recognize it…but help our students showcase and build upon that learning.

Thank you to Peter and Russ for your inspiring discussion, and a special shout out to Peter on his newest book!

Lindsey Downs

Assistant Director, Communications and Community, WCET




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